Zhai Kun: U.S. Reengineering in the Indo-Pacific
Author： ZHAI Kun Date：2022-10-20
Editor's note: This article is originally published on China-US Focus, https://www.chinausfocus.com/foreign-policy/us-reengineering-in-the-indo-pacific
The U.S. midterm elections are coming, and the country’s Indo-Pacific Strategy layout is basically complete. It is widely predicted that President Joe Biden will be disadvantaged in the elections and his term may enter a weak phase. Whether the Indo-Pacific Strategy can continue to be effectively promoted thus becomes a question, and it has entered the cleanup phase in advance.
If Biden can be reelected, the strategy will maintain a certain degree of continuity. If he cannot, it will naturally become a legacy. Where will the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy go? This requires answering the question at its heart. This article argues that the most incredible legacy of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy that could be passed on to the next president is the systematic reengineering of the strategy itself.
Biden’s strategy has taken shape and systematically reconfigured and optimized the landscape. Biden inherited Barack Obama’s Asia-Pacific rebalancing and Trump’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, showing continuity. Biden has further completed the shift in the strategic concept from the Asia-Pacific region to an Indo-Pacific perspective. Moreover, he set up the basic structure in time for the midterm elections.
Biden’s version has three pillars comprising political economic and security aspects:
Politically, his goal is to maintain the U.S. hegemonic order in the Indo-Pacific and to draw in regional countries, especially allies and partners, to counterbalance and contain China. This includes building various technical and democratic alliances, visiting East Asia, convening a special U.S.-ASEAN summit to upgrade the relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership and proposing the Roadmap for a 21st-Century U.S.-Pacific Island Partnership.
In the security realm, Biden has strengthened bilateral alliances, continued the Trump-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and created the Australia-UK-U.S. Trilateral Security Partnership, a small circle of Anglo-Saxons in the Indo-Pacific.
But the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, the economic pillar of Biden’s strategy, was not formally introduced until May this year. The first ministerial meeting was held in September.
Biden’s strategy is more systematic and practical than Trump’s. The critical point is that Biden offers a standard model that subsequent U.S. presidents can use to advance the strategy —applying a strategic methodology to the complex regional system to grasp and lead its evolution.
The last three U.S. presidents have paid particular attention to the rapid evolution of the regional system. The U.S. proposed the Indo-Pacific geopolitical space because it saw India’s rising connectivity and influence in the Asia-Pacific and recognized its elevated status in U.S. strategy toward China. But merely giving India the strategic position it deserves would be to underestimate the ability of the U.S. to employ its global strategic system. Under Trump, the U.S. had supported European countries in developing Indo-Pacific strategies, seeking to form a strategic field dominated by the West.
Under the new strategic vision, the U.S. would reshape the regional structure of the Indo-Pacific system. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. dominance of the Asia-Pacific’s economic and security order has risen and fallen. ASEAN-led regional security and economic architectures have emerged and even gained recognition from countries (including the U.S.) that joined the ASEAN-led East Asia Summit under Obama. It indicated a decline in U.S. leadership and order-shaping power in the region and the rise of ASEAN and Chinese influence.
The U.S. can only reshape the Indo-Pacific system under a basic idea somewhat like a joint effort vs. a collaborative one. The Trans-Pacific Partnership severely impacted the establishment of regional economic cooperation in East Asia, though it was politically successful. However, it was scrapped by Donald Trump. Biden’s IPEF, which is also reshaping the regional economic structure, can be seen as a considerable deformation of the TPP. The IPEF focuses more on emerging areas of cooperation than did the TPP, with more emphasis on selecting the region’s more developed economies in terms of membership, more undermatched criteria, more modular content and relatively lenient negotiations. The IPEF was proposed in May with the support of Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, seven ASEAN countries and Fiji.
Biden’s approach to the security architecture of the Indo-Pacific is more aggressive, daring and confrontational. For example, Biden has not scrapped the Quad mechanism created under Trump but intentionally materialized and expanded it. Moreover, Biden created the incompatible AUKUS as an Anglo-Saxon maritime military alliance, with its enormous conceptual and substantive impact on the regional security order and architecture.
We predict that creating an Indo-Pacific strategic system and transforming the regional structure will be a legacy of Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy that subsequent U.S. presidents may inherit. However, the legacy also creates an impossible strategic triangle for the U.S., namely the conflicting nature of the three primary political, economic and security goals.
From a global perspective, China is also part of the geographic scope of the Indo-Pacific, and it’s unlikely that the U.S. will cut China out of the global Indo-Pacific. From the perspective of the Indo-Pacific itself, the three primary objectives of the U.S. strategy should be linked and supported to bring the system’s power into play. At the core of the three objectives is security. Overemphasizing this objective by excluding China will make the economic goals less attractive and lose support in industrial chain transfers. It will instead stimulate many countries in the region to avoid choosing sides, thus hindering the achievement of the political objectives.
From the U.S. domestic point of view, each of the three goals has its limitations, and they fight each other. The U.S. can hardly build up the regional economic pillar without opening up its domestic market, and if it does, it will then face divergent positions within the country. Moreover, while the U.S. may have an internal bipartisan consensus on China, diplomatic and security problems, loopholes and contradictions exist for many Indo-Pacific countries.
Editor: LI Fangqi
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